He looked at him calmly, but in her set, white face he seemed to read already his sentence!
"Do you think it worth while, Mr. Trent? There is so much, as you put it, to be explained, that the task, even to a man of your versatility, seems hopeless!"
"I shall not trouble you long," he said. "At least one man's word should be as good as another's - and you have listened to what my enemy " - he motioned towards Francis - " has to say."
Francis shrugged his shoulders.
"I can assure you," he interrupted, "that I have no feeling of enmity towards you in the slightest. My opinion you know. I have never troubled to conceal it. But I deny that I am prejudiced by any personal feeling."
Trent ignored his speech.
"What I have to say to you," he continued addressing Ernestine, "I want to say before you see your father. I won't take up your time. I won't waste words. I take you back ten years to when I met him at Attra and we became partners in a certain enterprise. Your father at that time was a harmless wreck of a man who was fast killing himself with brandy. He had some money, I had none. With it we bought the necessary outfit and presents for my enterprise and started for Bekwando. The whole of the work fell to my share, and with great trouble I succeeded in obtaining the concessions we were working for. Your father spent all his time drinking, and playing cards, when I would play with him. The agreement as to the sharing of the profits was drawn up, it is true, by me, but at that time he made no word of complaint. I had no relations, he described himself as cut off wholly from his. It was here Francis first came on the scene. He found your father half drunk, and when he read the agreement it was plain what he thought. He thought that I was letting your father kill himself that the whole thing might be mine. He has probably told you so. I deny it. I did all I could to keep him sober!
"On our homeward way your father was ill and our bearers deserted us. We were pursued by the natives, who repented their concession, and I had to fight them more than once, half a dozen strong, with your father unconscious at my feet. It is true that I left him in the bush, but it was at his bidding and I believed him dying. It was my only chance and I took it. I escaped and reached Attra. Then, to raise money to reach England, I had to borrow from a man named Da Souza, and afterwards, in London, to start the Company, I had to make him my partner in the profits of the concession. One day I quarrelled with him - it was just at the time I met you - and then, for the first time, I heard of your father's being alive. I went out to Africa to bring him back and Da Souza followed me in abject fear, for as my partner he lost half if your father's claim was good. I found your father infirm and only half sane. I did all I could for him whilst I worked in the interior, and meant to bring him back to England with me when I came. unfortunately he recovered a little and suddenly seized upon the idea of visiting England. He left before me and fell into the hands of Da Souza, who had the best possible reasons in the world for keeping him in the background. I rescued him from them in time to save him from death and brought him to my own house, sent for doctors and nurses, and, when he was fit for you to see, I should have sent for you. I did not, I'll admit, make any public declaration of his existence, for the simple reason that it would have crippled our Company, and there are the interests of the shareholders to be considered, but I executed and signed a deed of partnership days ago which makes him an equal sharer in every penny I possess. Now this is the truth, Miss Wendermott, and if it is not a story I am particularly proud of, I don't very well see what else I could have done. It is my story and it is a true one. Will you believe it or will you take his word against mine?"
She would have spoken, but Francis held up his hand.
"My story," he said coolly, "has been told behind your back. It is only fair to repeat it to your face. I have told Miss Wendermott this - that I met you first in the village of Bekwando with a concession in your hand made out to you and her father jointly, with the curious proviso that in the event of the death of one the other was his heir. I pointed out to Miss Wendermott that you were in the prime of life and in magnificent condition, while her father was already on the threshold of the grave and drinking himself into a fever in a squalid hut in a village of swamps. I told her that I suspected foul play, that I followed you both and found her father left to the tender mercies of the savages, deserted by you in the bush. I told her that many months afterwards he disappeared, simultaneously with your arrival in the country, that a day or two ago you swore to me you had no idea where he was. That has been my story, Trent, let Miss Wendermott choose between them."
"I am content," Trent cried fiercely. "Your story is true enough, but it is cunningly linked together. You have done your worst. Choose!"
For ever afterwards he was glad of that single look of reproach which seemed to escape her unwittingly as her eyes met his. But she turned away and his heart was like a stone.
"You have deceived me, Mr. Trent. I am very sorry, and very disappointed."
"And you," he cried passionately, "are you yourself so blameless? Were you altogether deceived by your relations, or had you never a suspicion that your father might still be alive? You had my message through Mr. Cuthbert; I met you day by day after you knew that I had been your father's partner, and never once did you give yourself away! Were you tarred with the same brush as those canting snobs who doomed a poor old man to a living death? Doesn't it look like it? What am I to think of you?"
"Your judgment, Mr. Trent," she answered quietly, "is of no importance to me! It does not interest me in any way. But I will tell you this. If I did not disclose myself, it was because I distrusted you. I wanted to know the truth, and I set myself to find it out."
"Your friendship was a lie, then!" he cried, with flashing eyes. "To you I was nothing but a suspected man to be spied upon and betrayed."
She faltered and did not answer him. Outside the nurse was knocking at the door. Trent waved them away with an imperious gesture.
"Be off," he cried, "both of you! You can do your worst! I thank Heaven that I am not of your class, whose men have flints for hearts and whose women can lie like angels."
They left him alone, and Trent, with a groan, plucked from his heart the one strong, sweet hope which had changed his life so wonderfully. Upstairs, Monty was sobbing, with his little girl's arms about him.Next